Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Buber on the Palestine Question

We do not associate Mahatma Gandhi with issues of foreign policy. During the freedom movement, questions of foreign affairs were left to Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Jayaprakash Narayan. But Gandhi, the miracle man, kept himself abreast of the happenings in the world, though he did not always spend time analysing them or explaining them as the others did. But when he took a stand, it was based on clear thinking and common sense.

So, when Gandhi was asked to give his view of the matter on the Palestinian question, he wrote an editorial in the Harijan on November 26, 1938 about it. It seems to be the case that he was reluctantly drawn into the debate. But once he was in it, Gandhi did not hesitate to state what he thought without any ambiguity.

He began: “Several letters have been received by me asking me to declare my views about the Arab-Jew question in Palestine and the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is not without hesitation that I venture to offer my views on this very difficult question.”

He recalled his friendship with the Jews during his stay in South Africa, and how he learnt from them about their (the Jews) persecution through history. And he came to the conclusion that the Jews were to Christianity what the untouchables were to Hinduism. He wrote: “They have been the untouchables of Christianity. The parallel between their treatment by Christians and the treatment of untouchables by Hindus is very close. Religious sanction has been invoked in both cases for the justification of the inhuman treatment meted out to them.”

But he was clear in his mind about the merits of the case – whether the Jews had a right to a Jewish homeland. His sympathy for the suffering Jews did not blind him to some of the basic facts of history. And so, Gandhi stated his point of view: “But my sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me…Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct.”
He looked at the question of a Jewish homeland more closely. And he came to the incontrovertible conclusion: “... And now a word to the Jews in Palestine. I have no doubt that they are going about it in the wrong way. The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts. But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs. They should seek to convert the Arab heart.”

He did not approve of the Arab violence against the Jewish settlers, but he was conscious of the fact that the Jews had no plausible right over the land. And he said so: “I am not defending the Arab excesses. I wish they had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.”

The words have a contemporary ring to them though they were written 63 years ago.
But Gandhi’s editorial evoked a passionate response from the Jewish philosopher and a Zionist advocate Martin Buber in 1939. Interestingly, the Israeli archives on the Internet contain Buber’s reply, but they do not include Gandhi’s editorial in the Harijan. Buber began his response saying: “You, Mahatma Gandhi, who know of the connection between tradition and future, should not associate yourself with those who pass over our cause without understanding or sympathy.” It is an unjust accusation because we have seen that Gandhi had made his sympathies for the Jews very clear in his editorial.
Buber tried to argue his case for Zionism with all the strength of his mind, but he fails to convince an unprejudiced reader. The philosopher says that the Arabs settled in Palestine through conquest, and he tries to show that the Jewish mode of settlement is different in nature: “Thus settlement by conquest justifies for you, a right of ownership of Palestine; whereas a settlement such as the Jewish — the methods of which, it is true, though not always doing full justice to Arab ways of life, were even in the most objectionable cases far removed from those of conquest — does not justify in your opinion any participation in this right of possession.”

And Buber, the philosopher, makes an eloquent argument to justify the Jewish settlement in Palestine. And given the present crisis between Israel and Palestine, what he has to say still makes a lot of sense. “This land recognizes us, for it is fruitful through us: and precisely because it bears fruit for us, it recognizes us. Our settlers do not come here as do the colonists from the Occident to have natives do their work for them; they themselves set their shoulders to the plow and they spend their strength and their blood to make the land fruitful. But it is not only for ourselves that we desire its fertility. The Jewish farmers have begun to teach their brothers, the Arab farmers, to cultivate the land more intensively; we desire to teach them further: together with them we want to cultivate the land — to "serve" it, as the Hebrew has it. The more fertile this soil becomes, the more space there will be for us and for them. We have no desire to dispossess them: we want to live with them. We do not want to dominate them: we want to serve with them. . . .”

Despite the real differences between their viewpoints, it can be seen that both Gandhi and Buber realise the moral solution to the problem of Jews in Palestine: the acquiescence of the Arabs of the land. Neither the fanatical settlers on the West Bank nor Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon understand the language of Gandhi nor of the Hasidic Buber.

(This article first appeared in The New Indian Express Sunday Magazine sometime in 2002, and it was later part of my book, "Mulah Omar and Robespierre Essays In The Politics Of Ideas, Rupa; 2005)

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